Have you ever performed a few sets of an exercise and felt your muscle was going to explode out of your body? If so, you've experienced the much sought after muscle pump.
Your muscles look bigger and your veins pop through your skin, but does this have any practical purpose? A recent article by muscle-building gurus Brad Schoenfeld and Bret Contreras suggests that getting a muscle pump may be beneficial for athletes.
So What is a 'Muscle Pump'?
The process behind the pump is very technical, and we will spare you with the exercise physiology jargon.
When performing an intense exercise, more blood and fluid travel into the muscle than are released. Muscles become engorged with blood, which causes the pump—technically called cellular swelling. After you stop exercising that specific muscle, blood gradually releases, and your muscle returns to its normal state.
Bodybuilders and exercise models take advantage of this phenomenon before a competition or photo shoot to give the illusion that their muscles are bigger than they actually are. It's why your muscles experience a rapid, but temporary increase in size after you perform certain exercises.
Does a Muscle Pump Have Any Long-Term Benefits?
The pump has dramatic short-term appearance benefits. But even though its visible effects quickly taper, a muscle pump does contribute to long-term muscle growth. When you get a pump, you provide a sufficient challenge to your muscles to cause them to grow.
How does this work? Well, it's fairly complex, and some of the studies are inconclusive, but here are some theories:
- Cellular swelling increases protein synthesis and decreases protein breakdown within a cell—especially with fast-twitch fibers. This creates an optimal environment for muscle growth.
- The muscle cell senses the increased pressure caused by the swelling muscle and adapts by fortifying its structure as a means of survival.
- Stem cells found within the muscle are activated, helping fibers repair and grow.
Should You Strive to Get a Pump?
If your goal is to build muscle, then absolutely. The pump is an essential aspect of any hypertrophy training phase.
However, we want to reiterate that as an athlete, building muscle is only a part of your overall training program and should not be your ultimate goal. You should strive to become a better athlete.
Contreras and Schoenfeld recommend focusing on heavy multi-joint lifts, such as the Deadlift, Squat and Bench Press. Getting in a pump from time to time is valuable, but it's not something you should do every workout.
How Do I Take Advantage of the Pump?
- Perform high reps using a low to moderate weight and minimal rest periods. For example 2-3x20 with 60 seconds rest and 5-10x8-12 with 30 seconds rest are recommended volumes.
- Perform a drop set, which Todd Durkin shows you in this World-Class Workout episode.
- Isolation exercises such as Tricep Extensions and Bicep Curls most effectively induce a pump.
- When performing multi-joint exercises like Squats or Push-Ups, perform partial reps, focusing on the bottom half of the movement to keep your muscles under tension.
- Do not relax between reps.
Schoenfeld, B., Contreras, B., & Sorace, P. (2014). "The Muscle Pump: Potential Mechanisms and Applications for Enhancing Hypertrophic Adaptations." Strength & Conditioning Journal, 36, 21-25.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock